YouTube Creators: Here’s What You Need to Know About Music Licensing

May 21, 2018

Cultivating over a billion users around the world, YouTube offers content creators unprecedented access to viewers. Whether you’re a teen recording makeup tips on your phone, a digital marketing agency repping name brands, or a big personality searching for your fan base, YouTube could be your key to viral success and all the ad revenue that comes with it. Of course, to make it on YouTube, you have to follow the rules. One of the biggest hazards that trip up new content creators is music licensing. This isn’t a small issue. If you accidentally or unknowingly use music that doesn’t belong to you, a YouTube takedown notice and lost ad revenue could be the least of your worries!

Here’s everything you need to know about music licensing on YouTube so you can focus on bumping up your viewership instead of prepping for court!  

A Quick Lesson About Copyright

Young woman records self playing acoustic guitar

Let’s say you want to work through your complicated relationship with your roommate’s guinea pig. You jot down some bad poetry about Mr. Giggle’s beady eyes, strum a few chords on your guitar, and turn that poem into a song.

A copyright is born.

As the copyright owner of “I Hate You, Mr. Giggle,” you own:

  • The recording of your song (the performance)
  • The notes of the song (those guitar chords)
  • The lyrics of the song (your terrible poem)

No one else has the right to use your performance, the melody of the song, or your lyrics without your expressed permission. If you register the copyright through the U.S. copyright office, you can sell the rights to your song, license your song, prevent others from using your song, and even possibly sue them if they do!

Any time someone plays music, it must be licensed. That includes music for films, music in video games, the samba music playing at your favorite Mexican restaurant, and even the neat mashups your Zumba instructor loves to blast. (We don’t judge your Zumba. We applaud you for staying active!) Even when you listen to music in the car, that music is licensed by the radio station or streaming service.

As a content creator, you don’t have some magical immunity against copyright and music licensing. If you want to use music as part of your YouTube video, even if you aren’t trying to make money, you still need permission from the copyright owner or a license.

How Does YouTube Police Its Videos?

We know that you would never ever try to game the system, but just in case you have a friend who might be thinking sneaky thoughts, keep reading. This “friend” might consider that with over 400 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute, there’s just no way the behemoth video site can possibly police every video.

Your friend would be wrong.

Over the past few years, YouTube has put a lot of muscle into identifying, taking down, and punishing content creators who abuse copyright permissions. It primarily relies on two systems. First, any artist who believes that their work is being used without permission can send YouTube a copyright infringement notice. YouTube will quickly pull down your video if they find merit to the claim.

Second, YouTube is always improving its Content ID Match system. This algorithm constantly scans newly uploaded videos, searching for any copyrighted music or video. Content ID Match contains more than 50 million active reference files that it compares against new videos. Experts tend to agree that YouTube’s ability to ferret out pirated music, in particular, is pretty good.

What that means for your friend is that it’s not a matter of if he’ll be caught, but when.

Note: If your video has been taken down incorrectly, you can dispute the infringement notice or Content ID takedown. Just be triple sure you are in the right before trying to get your video back up!

What Happens if You Use Unlicensed Music in Your YouTube Video? (Hint: It’s Not Good)

Young man looks unhappy while working on laptop

Using music without permission on YouTube is an offense that the video giant takes very seriously. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know the rules or even accidentally captured a song playing on the radio in the background while recording your epic skateboard moves. It’s still copyright infringement.

The least of your worries is that YouTube will promptly take down your video, which will result in a loss of all potential ad revenue until you get the situation figured out. YouTube will also give you a strike and require you to take a fun online course all about copyright law. Just as in baseball, if you get three strikes, you are out. Except in this case, instead of trudging to the dugout and getting a root beer float after the game, YouTube will take down your channel and slap you with a lifetime ban. If you were earning serious income from your YouTube videos, you could go from prince to pauper overnight!

Think that’s bad? It could get worse. The copyright holder may decide to drag you to court, and you could end up paying thousands of dollars to settle the case.

So, let’s review – don’t steal music!

Note: Attribution is not permission! It’s so nice that you gave Cardi B credit when you used her song, “I Like It” in your beginner origami tutorial video, but that’s not going to save you. Attribution is not the same thing as getting permission!

How to Find Music You Can Use on YouTube

So, is all music basically off limits for your YouTube videos? Are you going to have to put your content creation dreams on hold so you can learn the jazz flute and make all your own music? No! (Though you should definitely learn the jazz flute anyway.)

There are multiple ways you can find legal music to use in your YouTube videos.

Get Permission from the Artist

If you have lots of money, time, and preferably a lawyer on staff, you can negotiate with each artist (or their publisher or label) to get permission to use their music in your video. Newer artists or unknown artists may give you a good deal or even give you permission for free if you ask nicely.

This option works, but it’s also incredibly time intensive and can get extremely expensive, fast! Unless you’re producing a major studio film or have a $600,000 budget for your commercial, this probably isn’t the best use of your time or funds.

Creative Commons

Artists can offer public use of their song through a Creative Commons license. Several websites have curated these Creative Common songs for easy access and review. Be careful on these sites! The Creative Commons license is very broad, and artists can add all sorts of special designations that restrict your usage. The most liberal Creative Commons licenses allow for unlimited use and remixing of songs even for commercial purposes, but other Creative Commons licenses restrict commercial use and/or remixing.

If you decide to go this route, read up on Creative Common licenses and triple check the permissions granted before using a Creative Commons song in your videos.

Public Domain

Old timey black and white photo of young woman playing mandoli

Copyright doesn’t exist until infinity. Seventy-five years after the death of the creator, a piece of music enters into the public domain as long as the heirs of the creator don’t file a copyright extension. Works in the public domain are free for you to use any way you like. The problem is, well, public domain works tend to be 100 years old or more! You won’t exactly be able to find that gorgeous rock ballad that would pair perfectly with your video in the public domain. But hey, if you’ve been dying to use “Danny Boy” in your video, go to town!

Stock Music Site

Your last and best option is to join a stock music site designed specifically to provide great music for enthusiastic and law-abiding content creators, such as yourself. Soundstripe is an example of this new crop of music stock sites.

The beauty of these operations is that they handle all of the music licensing and royalty issues, so you never have to worry about landing in hot water with YouTube or an artist. Some sites charge you per song or per usage, but at Soundstripe we make it easy-peasy. Just sign up for a monthly or yearly subscription, and you’ll gain unlimited access to our entire music library.

Use as many songs as you want as much as you want, all royalty free! Stock music sites like Soundstripe save you time and money so you can get back to making amazing, viral videos instead of worrying about takedown notices and lawsuits!

Now that you’ve read this article, you have no excuse for abusing copyright on YouTube. Also, if anyone dares to steal “I Hate You, Mr. Giggle,” you know what to do!

Sign up for Soundstripe today and start creating with the top music for videos without the worry of music licensing.

Take a listen to our music for free!
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